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Mailbag, Age old questions

University Of Southern California : 21 May, 2007  (Technical Article)
My compliments to Eric Niiler for his excellent article on Caleb Finch
The title of the article, “Rock of Aging,” however, is somewhat ironic in the sense that aging is a time when, as Yeats said, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”

If our culture finds ways to prolong life, we also need a Moses who will knock on the rock of aging to produce the water that washes away the fiction that life should be maintained at any cost; the horrid treatment the elderly are given in most care facilities; and the grip of the drug companies that promise eternal life to elderly people who cannot afford the high cost of medications. In short, each of us needs to acquire Finch’s investigative approach to the spiritual aspects of aging. But then, perhaps life itself is enough. Nevertheless, kudos to Niiler and Finch.

As an 80-year-old living in a retirement community of over 300 senior citizens, I was personally very interested in the article on Caleb Finch’s study of aging. His various biological studies are very impressive. Eric Niiler reports that Finch is convinced that there are three influences on life spans, genes, environment and chance. I believe there is a fourth influence, which Finch implies, that is, personal choice, a good part of which is not reducible to the other three influences.

In one paragraph Niiler begins by saying, “In terms of prolonging his own life span, the 62-year-old scholar has chosen his ancestors well.... Finch eats what he calls a ‘sensible diet’.... He exercises regularly.... He takes supplements of vitamins C and E.” The first sentence uses “chosen” facetiously, but in regard to eating, exercise and vitamins, his implied choices are genuine and relevant to prolonging his life.

Further on, “Finch recommends: ‘Keep your blood pressure down, don’t get overweight, keep your blood sugar lower. And exercise: That’s the best you can do.’” Then, “...reducing risk factors can prolong life....” It seems that in giving this advice, Finch is saying that personal choice can influence our life spans, as well as genes, environment and chance.

Caleb Finch replies: I fully agree that personal choice is not simply reducible to genes, environment or chance events of development. As a neuroscientist, I am well aware that “choice,” like other complex behaviors, will not yield to simple reductionalism. We scientists love to look for situations where we can resolve major influences into a few key factors. I suspect for most individuals, their outcomes of aging will be very challenging to predict, in the distant future as much as now. The exceptions may be in those who carry dominant genes with early adverse effects.

I read with interest Edie Barvin’s account of her trip to the Galápagos. However, I was astonished that no one said a word about the major role that USC biologists played in describing the marine fauna of the islands. Between 1932 and 1938, Captain Allan Hancock took USC biologists on five trips to the Galápagos. Based aboard his yacht, the Velero III, biologists collected crustaceans, mollusks, corals, echinoderms, fishes, insects and many other groups, both plant and animal, at the islands. Hundreds of specimens, housed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution and other museums, form the basis of comparison for identification of much of the marine fauna. The scientific accounts of these expeditions remain valuable references for those interested in the marine biota.

My major advisor during my studies toward the Ph.D. was John Garth, expert on crabs of the Galápagos. Dr. Garth gave presentations on the expeditions, complete with accounts of “roughing it” aboard a yacht where a string orchestra played during dinner. He also pointed out the images of animals of the Galápagos around the Allan Hancock Building. Inspired by Dr. Garth, I wrote an account of the shrimp of the Galápagos based on the collections in 1991. I spent close to two weeks on a joint diving trip in 1998 with biologists from the marine laboratory at the Darwin Research Station. I found many previously unreported species in coastal waters, including an undescribed genus and species of Snapping shrimp. Colleagues and I continue to find previously unreported or unknown species of marine life in the cool, nutrient-rich waters of the archipelago.

A boat trip, such as that taken by Ms. Barvin, is a good way to see the “high points” of the islands. However, even in Puerto Ayora, one can have the fun of chasing a Dwarf ground finch off your breakfast plate, stepping over the big marine iguana sunning himself by your diving gear or shooing a sea lion out of your boat.
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